This post is part of our forum on “Race and Latin America“
Lélia Gonzalez’s theorizations on race, racism, diaspora, and Black feminism in and from Latin America are critical interventions into Black studies. It should be no surprise then that one of her key works is titled “Por um feminismo afrolatinoamericano” (For an Afrolatinamerican feminism) (1988). My contribution here centers her theory of amefricanidade, or Amefricanity, that disrupts the Eurocentrism of latinidade, the denial of Brazilian racism, and the negation of Black Brazilians’ experiences. In addition, she provides a model to re-connect diasporic fractures in the Americas.
Like other places around the world, Latin Americans often express race in terms of ethnicity, biology, and/or nation. This is no different than what North Americans or Europeans do. Yet the Latin American cocktail is both peculiar and potent, expressing race as an extremely slippery signifier. Take Gilberto Freyre, a sociologist and architect of the Brazilian racial democracy thesis, for example. In his book Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization, he wrote, “Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned fair-haired one, carries about with him on his soul, when not on soul and body alike – for there are many in Brazil with the mongrel mark of the genipap – the shadow, or at least the birthmark, of the aborigine or the Negro.” As a result of large-scale miscegenation that dates back to slavery and colonialism, the thinking is that to be Brazilian is to be partly (but not entirely) Black, either through lineage or culture. One can easily perceive the muddling between nation (Brazil), ethnicity (soul), and biology (body) in his framework.
Latin America’s largest nation needs African and Indigenous cultures for its identity. However, Brazilian thought does not conceive of Brazil as a Black and/or Indigenous nation. Brazil is a mestiço nation, a new race that blends the “Old Worlds” together. This slight change of hand substitutes nation for race, hoping that prioritizing a national identity will strip away the salience of race and obscure how racism permeates socioeconomic and political inequalities.
Despite the racial democracy thesis, not every Brazilian experiences Blackness through lineage, nation, or culture. For the nation’s 55% Black population, Blackness is frequently a sociopolitical category that identifies, critiques, and dismantles structural racism.1 Numerous Black intellectuals have challenged the simplistic view that Brazil does not have racism and/or racists. They often tether Black experiences and material conditions to other national examples, highlighting how white supremacy and anti-Blackness are local structures ingrained in global phenomena.
One specific Black intellectual is Lélia Gonzalez and her concept of amefricanidade or Amefricanity.2 In her pioneering 1988 essay “A categoria politico-cultural da Amefricanidade,” she describes contrasting structures of racism between the Anglo-Saxon world and the “societies of Latin origin.” The former has “open racism” that explicitly desires to maintain European blood purity to uphold whiteness as superior. The latter structure, such as Brazil, uses “masked racism” which is “racism by denial.” Racial miscegenation, both a taboo and threat to the racial order in the Anglo-Saxon world, is a mechanism for assimilation in the racial democracy thesis stated above. Gonzalez goes on to write that many Latin American societies utilize interracial mixture and cultural syncretism to reinforce whiteness as superior and thus an ideal for both one’s consciousness and social status. Interracial mixture then serves as an ideological cover to deny that racism exists in Latin American societies. At the same time, miscegenation is coupled with white supremacy in hopes that, through generations of interracial mixture, Brazilians will whiten the nation as they dismiss darker Brazilians as romantic partners and seek out lighter partners to procreate with.
Gonzalez writes that the myth of white superiority fractures Black racial identities, compelling Black Brazilians to whiten themselves socially and internally while denying their African heritage. Sociologists Jules Falquet and Azedeh Kian reflected that the “concept of amefricanity that she develops here is, indeed, not anything other than a critique of Latin America’s ‘Latinity’ as a form of Eurocentrism, which neglects the African, as well as the Indian, roots of the contemporary cultures of the continent.” Amefricanidade critiques how many Brazilians will acknowledge a diluted Blackness, but also desire to eradicate it by aspiring to whiteness through bodily aesthetics, social status, ideological beliefs, family reproduction, and cultural behaviors.
Brazilian national thought privileges the nation over race through a variety of symbolic and psychoanalytical registers. For example the common term for Black Brazilians is “Afro-Brazilian.” This is not specific to Brazil, and it occurs through the Americas with other examples like Afro-American or Afro-Cuban. Gonzalez takes issue with how nationality takes priority even for Black identifications. That is, Black identities, cultures, and politics are bounded by national borders. Even worse, the nationality is the base identity and the “Afro-” is a truncated qualifier, suggesting less significance than Brazilian.
In her transnational diasporic research, Gonzalez identified numerous commonalities between Black Brazilians and other Black people in the Americas that can be traced to African ethnic groups. This included language, linguistics, and other cultural practices. She began to envision Black people across the Americas as historically united by the intertwined histories of the Middle Passage, colonialism, and slavery. She also saw contemporary social, cultural, and political connections: the struggle for recognition, the fight against anti-Black racism, and the creative cultivation of African-derived cultures. Race is local and transnational as it stretches across borders within a colonial matrix that produces all too common structures, inequalities, injustices, symbolic exclusions, and welfare indices that work towards premature death.
For this reason, Gonzalez sought an emergent identificatory device to bind Black people across the Americas, to emphasize diasporic solidarity rather than solidarity with non-Black countrymen. She uses the term Amefrican to accomplish this. It flips the Afro-(national) formula. Black people’s base identity is African, which has been modified by its insertion into the Americas. So, American (here a hemispheric term) becomes “Ame-,” qualifying the African base. It connects Black Brazilians first with other Black people in the Americas and seeks out a model of democratic unity that acknowledges differences and still resists against global anti-Blackness.
Gonzalez’s amefricanidade framework is an important site of racial theorizing in Latin America. Despite linguistic borders, her work is a necessary read for scholars of the African Diaspora. Fortunately, many scholars and activists are engaging and applying her work. A recent LASA forum highlights this. Keisha-Khan Perry and Edilza Sotero emphasize that Gonzalez’s work is as important as Claudia Jones’ in terms of a Black feminist project of anti-imperialism that acknowledges the distinct subjectivity of Black women. Similarly Claudia Pons Cardoso writes that Gonzalez’s work is a decolonial Black feminist political theory that constructs a civilizing project based on different epistemes that do not rely on (Black) dehumanization. And Flávia Rios asserts that Gonzalez’s powerful theorizing demonstrated “her intellectual ambition to reimagine Latin America beyond an exclusively European influence.”
For me, Gonzalez provided a framework that ties race and diaspora together while troubling the primacy of the nation. A Black identity should not only be a racial one in a national context of structural racism; it should also be a diasporic identity of political, cultural, and social solidarity and exchange. It also strives to dismantle diasporic hierarchies that privilege some Black people as more important than others. This traverses both the Global North and the Global South, pulsating across linguistic, national, and cultural borders at will. As much as she disturbs, she also opens up limitless possibilities for seeing the world anew, a world that includes Black liberation.
- Gladys L. Mitchell-Walthour rightfully points out how Blackness can also signify location, commodification, and apolitical stances. See Gladys L. Mitchell-Walthour, “Changing Notions of Blackness in Field Research in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil,” in Race and the Politics of Knowledge Production: Diaspora and Black Transnational Scholarship in the United States and Brazil, edited by Gladys L. Mitchell-Walthour & Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 113–122. ↩
- While she did not coin Amefrican, she did develop it into Amefricanity as a sophisticated model of Black diasporic identity, geography, culture, and politic. ↩